For the last few days the sounds of carols have been drifting in through the open window of my office that sits in the lee of the Chapel. The school choir has been rehearsing for the annual concert of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ that takes place at the end of the Christmas Quarter. A concert that brings with it not just the anticipation of the Christmas dinner immediately after, but also the rest and relaxation of the tantalisingly long holiday to follow.
As I ‘harken’ to the harmonies of Herald Angels, I am filled with the knowledge that while peace on earth as a whole may be too much to ask for, it will at least be peaceful in our little corner of the world, even if just for a few short weeks.
Despite the music filling the air around me, schools are not always such harmonious places. Relationships can bring us so much joy, but they can also hurt us so. Like every community, schools carry the potential for both. Many students, in exuberant tones tell of the wonderful friendships they have built at school. But there are other stories – much more reluctantly shared – where pupils are socially shamed and marginalized for their contrary ways.
“There’s an underlying anxiety to the whole arrangement that no one escapes. Whether you’re ‘one-up’ or ‘one-down’, you live with the tensions of a ‘prove yourself’ world.” Rob Pluke
Each student needs to hear the words: “hold yourself with warm regard despite your imperfections”, as per Terrence Real’s definition of self-worth . This kind of self-acceptance is difficult to maintain when the cool group (those with social power) consistently tell you something else: “hold yourself with low regard because of your imperfections”.
There’s an underlying anxiety to the whole arrangement that no one escapes. Whether you’re ‘one-up’ or ‘one-down’, you live with the tensions of a ‘prove yourself’ world. Because they fear their own fragilities, the ‘cool kids’ project failure onto the losers, and attack it there. Everyone is terrified of falling short, looking stupid, weak, weird and, for a young boy, womanly. We are all held hostage by the social gaze.
It’s a perilous endeavour. If status is your solution, you can never feel safe; never be sure that you’ve actually made it. This insecurity restricts our ability to love. If we can’t hold ourselves in warm regard, despite our imperfections, we can’t offer others the same generous acceptance.
That’s why humility provides such an important basis for love. It’s a ‘warts and all’ compassionate acceptance of the self. You know you have abilities, but you also know there’s a ton of stuff you can’t do. No more proving the self. Instead, you just get on with living…
…and loving. Because with humility our need to be better falls away. In its place, is a delight in all that others have to offer? We ask more questions, and make less pronouncements. We stop trying to be clever or interesting, because we’re interested in learning from the cleverness of others. Keen to stay on the edge of what we don’t know.
As adults, parents and teachers, if we’re stressed, angry, and afraid, it’s hard to feel humble. We’re on the defensive, on edge; ever alert to the gloss of our reputations. And, if being humble is so difficult for us to hold onto, can we really expect our young charges to get it? Perhaps not but we owe it to them to point them in the right direction. Here’s a start:
- Take time out -. Humility is about being ‘same as’. Not in terms of ability, rather in terms of worth. So perhaps first up, we could encourage our children to take some time out this holiday. To be still, silent and at rest.
- Understand shame – If we want to hold ourselves and others with warm regard, we have to understand shame. We know it at a visceral level. We’ve all suffered its fragmenting effects. As mentors, we must help students name the emotion, so that they can turn towards themselves in their moment of shame and still hear the still, small voice that says they are enough.
- Hold success lightly – When asked by beginners how best to hold a sword, actor Errol Flynn’s advice was “not too tight, and not too loose”. We need the same kind of grip on success. On the one hand, we want our children to go for it, to stretch their strengths, and work really hard. True self-confidence needs that kind of brick work. But at the same time, we don’t want our young charges to confuse winning with worth. If they do, then they’re likely to take a kind of ‘death grip’ on success.
“If status is your solution, you can never feel safe; never be sure that you’ve actually made it.” Rob Pluke
As the angelic strains with their ancient message of God’s love fade away and the choir makes their noisy, and far more earthly, exit from the Chapel, I am reminded of Timothy Keller’s powerful thoughts about being known and yet loved: “to be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God”.
I hope that you and yours will find some peace in these words this Christmas season and that in turn you will feel free to pass this peace onto others.
Tim Jarvis with Rob Pluke